Growers cast doubt over tighter plant inspections

Tightening plant health inspections may not be viable, growers have suggested as MEP Anthea McIntyre hopes to increase pest surveillance through a new EU law.

Coslett: highlighted necessity for customer guidance
Coslett: highlighted necessity for customer guidance

McIntyre's package of measures to tackle plant pests by stopping them entering the country was approved by the European Parliament's agriculture committee on 26 April. This means the McIntyre report will now go to the full Parliament for final approval with a recommendation to adopt it as EU law.

The report proposes compulsory general surveillance by member states for plant pests and diseases, mandatory surveillance for specified priority pests, harmonisation of the plant passport system and the introduction of preliminary assessments for plants imported from outside the EU that are likely to pose a risk.

While growers welcome stronger plant health measures, they fear there are not the resources to enforce them. Palmstead Nurseries marketing manager Nick Coslett suggested there is a need to treble the number of plant health inspectors at the docks to meet McIntyre's plans.

"Are all the member states going to increase resources to monitor and inspect for these pests?" he asked. "In the UK our controls are 'robust' if two half-day visits per 50ha nursery is robust. Can the Animal & Plant Health Agency recruit and retain sufficient inspectors or are they retiring at a faster rate? Is it therefore down to the nurseries to fully police the biosecurity issue?"

McIntyre responded: "It will ultimately be a matter for member states to make arrangements for implementation of the measures. All along the way we have striven to produce a range of responses which will be effective without adding unnecessary bureaucracy or cost."

Coslett said the graph of imported plant pests and diseases has been an exponential curve since joining the EU single market in 1989, after being flat since 1910. This shows that the EU single market plant phytosanitary controls are not working well, he added. "We have though managed to control Colorado beetle from gaining a foothold in the UK. We have also as a nation managed to avoid rabies becoming an imported problem."

The graph shows pests and diseases such as Chalara, horse chestnut blight, canker and miner, Phytophthoras, Massaria, oak processionary moth and several more entering the UK in recent years.

"The plant trade has evolved and people don't want to wait for large specimen plants," said Coslett. "Sometimes they are being imported direct to site by consumers and designers shopping direct on the web without the protection of a plant passport-holding nursery with the skilled staff to inspect plants before forwarding to customer sites. It requires more customer guidance from the teams selling plants. But we all want to make the sale and the consequences can take second place."

Coslett said just-in-time purchasing and supply mean we need stronger controls right across the European countries, but added that there is a lack of funding in the UK, inspectors and suitable graduates in plant science, with plant health inspectors already spread too thin.

He advocated quarantine zones in UK nurseries for imported plants and holding stock for a minimum of six weeks to see whether it has pests or diseases, but recognised the associated costs plus staffing and training involved. "But it's not easy. The reputable nurseries will be reducing the risks, making their EU purchasing more conservative, withdrawing from areas such as south Italy and only working with reputable growers with high standards.

"However, that's not foolproof and I am worried about the biosecurity issue. It will end up costing the customer more and that is never a message received well, let alone say yes you can have that plant but only after its been quarantined for a year. Customer planning will need to take a quantum leap."

Coslett said Xylella is a big fear and "would virtually shut the nursery down", adding: "There is concern that some nurseries might not recognise the disease let alone report the disease if it came to the UK for fear of the consequences to their business. It will be very, very difficult to keep out as there will be a supplier working on price alone and shortcutting any controls. How can we trust other nation states' control systems and procedures?"

The report on plant health was originally proposed by the EU Commission and, as lead MEP on the legislation, McIntyre has been responsible for steering it through the Parliament.

In negotiations with the EU Council and Commission officials ahead of the committee vote, McIntyre "strove to balance steps to counter diseases such as ash dieback with a regulatory regime that would not needlessly shackle growers or the horticulture trade".

Once it becomes law, the package will set out new basic standards to ensure that EU countries work together to address plant pests and diseases. This includes mandatory surveillance for high-risk pests and better use of the plant passport system.

There is no definite date to go to Parliament yet, though it will be in the coming months, depending on the weight of other business. The last sitting before the end of summer is in the week beginning 4 July. If not then, it will be September.

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